Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Review: 'Four Thieves Vinegar' at Baron's Court Theatre

Four Thieves Vinegar reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

Christine Foster's Four Thieves Vinegar is a great marriage of location and subject. The basement under the Curtain's Up is about as cramped as pub theatre gets: squeezing in a couple of rows of vintage cinema seats into a dark little room where low beams creak from the movements of the pub above. 

This makes it the perfect place to recreate a claustrophobic cell in Newgate Prison. It's 1665 and London is gripped by plague. We're only five years after the Restoration of Charles II, with the joyful return of theatre, gambling, and revelry. Now it's as if God has gone all Sodom and Gomorrah, smiting London with foul pestilence. Parish bells toll with each death; the progress of the disease marked by their increasing tempo.

Sequestered in a gloomy subterranean cell, our characters are somewhat protected from the disease. They are; unhappy alchemist Matthias (Nick Howard-Brown), a debtor who's sure that he can develop a cure for the plague if he just had the right ingredients; Jennet (Kate Huntsman), a young Christian woman sentenced to death after being inadvertently involved in a burglary; Hannah (Pip Henderson) a cynical nurse awaiting trial for peddling quack cures; and Simon (Bruce Holt), their personable jailer.

Telling the story of the plague from a limited viewpoint is a stroke of genius: allowing ample space to for expository dialogue about what's going on in the rest of London and debates on plague treatments and causes without ever seeming forced. Christine Foster has clearly done her research here, her characters talk of real plague cures, ranging from pressing chickens to their sores, smoking tobacco, consuming dried frog skins to the titular 'four thieves vinegar', a mythical concoction supposedly developed by thieves to allow them immunity while they rob the dead.

It makes Four Thieves Vinegar an effective history lesson, painting an evocative picture of what London was like when visited by an apocalyptic epidemic. As the play proceeds the world outside gradually stops as the citizens of London either flee or die. Foster writes lyrically of grass growing in the streets, abandoned houses and an ominous, pervasive silence. There's an interesting undertone of the entirety of London as a prison: one character suggests simply leaving the city for the less plague-ridden countryside (which seems like a logical plan) only to be told that countryfolk violently prevent anyone leaving the city walls for fear of spreading the infection.

But while Four Thieves Vinegar is a great way to learn about London's last great plague, it falls a little short when it comes to individual narratives. This is primarily down to a needlessly tangled knot of interpersonal relations that bogs the play down as we try to unpick them. Late revelations about secrets the characters have been concealing fall a little flat: when the historical backdrop is so compellingly drawn, it's difficult to care too much about their individual problems.

Pip Henderson's Hannah comes off best out of this - the actor having a fantastic 'period face'. This tricky-to-pin down physical quality makes an actor look like they could have plausibly walked out of the past, and this, combined with her easy delivery of Foster's impeccably researched 17th-century street slang, makes her a magnetic stage presence. The same can also be said of Bruce Kitchener's jailer, who produces a hell of a lot of pathos without actually spending much time on stage.

Howard-Brown and Huntsman are somewhat less convincing. It's nothing catastrophic, but simply that a half-crazed amateur alchemist/magician feels like an odd fit in an otherwise naturalistic drama. I don't doubt that men like him existed, but he's such an outlier that to focus so much of the play around his work detracts from the way Foster focuses on regular citizen's reactions to the plague. Huntsman, by contrast, just feels a bit waif-by-numbers, stuck in the same gear of whiny confusion through pretty much the entire play.

I love London history and Four Thieves Vinegar is very much up my street, but doesn't quite manage to marry the history lesson to the personal drama. It gets pretty damn close, but this is such an interesting moment in London history that it almost drowns out Foster's characters. Still, as far as learning and understanding the impact of the plague on ordinary citizens, it's great stuff.

Four Thieves Vinegar is at Baron's Court Theatre until 26 March.

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